Elmore Leonard – The Grand Master

Here’s another couple of videos from the CFA. I posted some from Lee Child a few months back.

Here, in his last in-depth talk and interview before he died, is the legendary Elmore Leonard. I honestly enjoy his work more than almost anyone else. His style is so simple, that it is easy to overlook just how sophisticated his storytelling abilities are. I don’t fully agree with everything he’s ever said on writing, but when he speaks, it’s always interesting.



To attract a large Audience, be a Selfish Writer

WritingYes, here we go again: another plea to be a selfish writer. I know I’ve banged on about this a number of times, but I only do so because it’s the biggest hurdle to so may writers.

It’s like we have this in-built mechanism to try and please others. I get that. I have it myself. But you have to try and make that feeling go away as much as possible. Write for yourself.

Author or works such as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

Yeah, he had a way with words. I’ve worked as a radio broadcaster for pretty much my whole working life. A professional presenter knows they’re talking to one person, and phrases their response accordingly, in a subtle way. Statistically the vast majority of people who listen to the radio do so alone. Talking to “you all out there” makes the show and alienating experience, the opposite of what you want. Writing as per Vonnegut’s advice is similar. Pretty much every reader does the activity alone, unless you’re maybe reading a bedtime story with your kids.

It’s about writing for yourself or for one person — never write for the sake of following a trend. Strunk and White spelt this out very poetically in Elements of Style: “Start sniffing at the air, or glancing at the trend machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.”

Don’t write what’s “hip”. Write what you love. If you write it with passion and energy, chances are, you won’t be alone: others will feel that way about the work too. If you write what you feel you “should”, then that energy and enthusiasm could well die out. If you don’t really care about the work your writing, why will any reader?

Is it worth Writing when you don’t feel like it?

Blank PageThe blank screen. The blinking cursor. So much possibility. But as you put your fingers to the keys… nothing.

We all get situations where we don’t feel like firing up the laptop and typing away. If the “muse” is not there, is it okay to put your work aside and wait for the “muse” to return? Or should you persevere?

I’ve written before how you can fight through “writer’s block”. But the question I’m posing here is should you fight it?

It depends on a single question: are you writing for fun or work?

If it’s a hobby, then what’s the problem? Nothing happens if you don’t deliver. If it’s for work, you need to get it done.

But even if you write for fun, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more fun than the exhilarating feeling of making progress with your writing project.

Keep persevering and working through your trouble. You’ll be amazed at how a little push and reap dividends.

Learn to Let Go: Working with an Editor

Keys on a keyboardCongratulations! You’ve got a publishing contract! But now, you have met someone called an editor who is going to work with you to get your book ready for publication. What do I mean by ready? Isn’t it already ready? Isn’t that why you sold it to, say, Penguin/Random House or HarperCollins?

Sadly no. It’s only now that a lot of the work begins.

An editor is the crucial second pair of eyes, dedicated to making a good book a perfect one. You need to learn to trust them. They only have one job: making your book the best version of itself.

But haven’t I always told you (more than once) to be selfish in your writing? Absolutely. But that stage is done, and now it’s time to move onto the publication stage. This is the stage of collaboration, and yes, compromise. But it’s all for the greater good of the finished piece.

The biggest challenge is that it requires you to be less protective of your “baby”. Let go of the strong emotional connection you have to the work.

But keep a copy of the finished piece you handed in to the publisher in the first place. That is draft one, and no one will ever take it away from you. But now it’s time or teamwork.

I have to be blunt about this: If you can’t trust your editor, then you either need to walk away from the deal or get the publisher to find an different editor. And in most cases where this rift has taken place, it’s not the editor at fault. And most publishers know this.

Lee Child on Writing Myths

Thank you so much to the reader who sent me these videos on Lee Child debunking certain writing myths, following on from last month’s post about “crappy writing rules”.

Lee’s the immensely popular and talented author of the Jack Reacher series, and so much of what he says here links to my own ramblings on writing over the past few years.

Enjoy! I’ll try and find some more content like this between now and the end of the year.

More Crappy “Rules For Writing” that you can Ignore

Not Tablet Law Ten Commandment Thou Shalt RuleUgh. They’re everywhere, and often repeated as sage advice: “only write about what you know”. “Don’t use verbs other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”. Some of these are useful in many cases, but should never be set in stone. If you feel it’s right to break a rule then break it. Better yet, act like their are no rules. I usually write “said” because it feels better. It’s not a rule, it just works. I try not to overthink it, as that would box me in creatively.

One of the frequently rolled-out lines is that “every character must WANT something”. Okay, sure, every human “wants” stuff and has motivation, but fretting over minor points with ancillary characters will bog down your story and may well induce writers block in many.

The better advice is this: you’re writing something that – I presume – you’d like people to read. That’s not too much of an assumption, right?

Well if this is true for you (and it almost certainly will be), then your readers are the masters, not your characters. Let your characters be who you want them to be. Go further: let them surprise you sometimes. It’s fun. But remember one thing: your READERS will WANT something. Maybe it’s a satisfying conclusion. Maybe it’s to be surprised and shocked. Maybe it’s to laugh out loud. Decide what it is you want your readers to feel and then… well, ignore it.

Seriously. As I said before, don’t overthink it. Let it sink to the back of your mind. It’ll come through subconsciously anyway when you write enticing scenes, or breathtaking dramatic moments.

Just don’t get hung up on writing rules. You’ll enjoy the writing process much more, and will probably write better things as a result.

Titles for Chapters?

Chapter-1Do you write titles for chapters? What are they like? Are they a suggestion of what the reader is going to get in that part of the story?

If that’s the case, why not just let the reader discover that by reading the chapter? Why give the game away?

I write short notes on each chapter. Sometimes a simple line, or paragraph. Maybe a little more, but not much more. When I come to write a chapter, I can refer to those notes. But I don’t want to the reader to ever see those notes. They’re the prompt for the performance I’m putting down on the paper for them. I want them to see the finished article, not the mechanics of how it was made. Does that make sense?

Some authors can just sit at a blank screen and write, with no notes or prompts. Others have to research extensively and practically write the chapter (or even more, based on word count) before starting the first draft. It’s not right to say that I sit somewhere in the middle: I’m much closer to the former than latter. I write just a few little notes to get me started, but nothing more. I want to be largely free to make things up as I go, as the idea comes to me. Those notes just help keep me grounded in the wider context on the story.

Writing a title and/or notes for a chapter is a great idea for many for these reasons. But when it comes to having a title for your chapter, think very hard about whether or not the title adds anything for the reader.

Here’s a general rule of thumb: if the book would still work without titles, then you should probably ditch them.